Album review: Kumi Koda - Grow Into One

Album review: Kumi Koda - Grow Into One | Random J Pop
With Kumi Koda's debut album Affection being shown no affection from the Japanese music buying public, Kumi Koda returned a year later with Grow Into One. The title of which was her telling us that she plans to dethrone Avex's number 1 at the time, Ayumi Hamasaki.

Kumi was not going down without a fight. Even if it meant squatting on every bottle in Minato-ku. But things get off to a wonky start.

The album intro features rappers Clench & Blista, which, I get. Avex want Kumi Koda to be that J-Pop chick who can give Ayu style J-Pop, but also do 'Urban'. The problem here isn't just that the song is a mess, but that it features two rappers who have a greater presence on the song than Kumi Koda herself, and also that that their names are fucking Clench & Blista. What record label are they signed to? STI? As was the case with Affection's album intro "Atomic Energy", "Teaser" just feels pointless. But it commits a greater sin than "Atomic Energy", because it goes right into a song which is so disparate from it; "Real Emotion", which should have just opened the damn album. We go from faux hood to J-Pop as fuck. "Real Emotion" was Kumi Koda's breakout song due to it being tied to Final Fantasy X-2, so it should have opened the album. "Teaser" would most-certainly put people off who are coming into this album off the back of seeing Yuna (not actually Yuna) pop her pussy in Luca.

Every Pop artist signed to Avex during the early 2000s got sucked into the Pop and R&B fusion sound which was sweeping the charts, fresh off the back of the parallel ascent of Rodney Jerkins and Max Martin. Where-as the likes of Hikaru Utada just...worked with Rodney Jerkins, not every artist was given the opportunity. So a third of the songs on this album is a case of Darkchild and Max Martin knock-off's, with harpsichord laden songs all trying to be the next "Say My Name", "It's Gonna Be Me" or "Overprotected". Grow Into One was the first album of Kumi Koda's to feature the production of a then new talent, Daisuke Imai, who would go on to transform Beni's sound and pave the way for both of their success with a string of ORICON top 20 albums; Bitter & Sweet, Lovebox, Jewel and Fortune. Daisuke Imai was part of the initial wave of Japanese producers to become Japan's answer to Rodney Jerkins, having cut his teeth working with Namie Amuro on her Suite Chic project in her bid to cross over into J-R&B from Tetsuya Komuro's tired-ass Pop. His contribution "One Night Romance" is really nice. The X-Men vs. Street Fighter MIDI guitars sound awful. But generally it's a really nice song. The other J-R&B style cuts, are surprisingly good. "Boy Friend?" sounds a lot like Hikaru Utada's "In My Room", which I imagine was completely intentional, given the First Love influences heard on Affection. An influence which carries through to "Ranhansha". "S.O.S ~Sound of Silence~" tries to fuse R&B with J-R&B and comes close to getting it right, but not quite. The verses and the chorus feel like they're from two completely songs. The chorus itself is strong, but the verses sound off. There's no transitioning between them. A contrast can be nice, but there still needs to be some connection and something which makes the different parts of the song feel whole.

Album review: Kumi Koda - Grow Into One | Random J Pop

Kumi's gambit is her ballads, and she shows that she's no fluke. "Your Only One" does a really great job of carrying through the J-R&B motif into a J-Ballad, just as "Your Song" did and as her future ballads would do. "1000 Words" is another strong ballad which builds the foundation on which Kumi would base her ballads in the future. It's a shame the song is omitted from the digital version of the album globally. "Pearl Moon" is nice, but feels lacking. Kumi Koda's one take sounding-ass vocals needed backing vocals to support her. And as nice as the piano is, you're constantly under the impression that something is going to happen because of the chord progressions and the tempo, and also because of the expectations of a J-Ballad. So you're expecting strings, guitars and all that shit to come in, but it never does, and it really needed to. The song is just too bare.

And because we need to cover all bases, we get your typical Pop bops too. "Real Emotion" is a great song. I don't give a fuck what anybody says. And yes, I liked Final Fantasy X-2. Spira's Angels was far better than that ragtag misfit group I had to trudge around with in Final Fantasy X. It lacks the edge that Kumi is trying to establish, but it's also just a really good song which showcases her really well. The same goes for "Nasty Girl" and "To Be One". The problem with these songs is that they feel at odds with the J-R&B leaning cuts. There is zero effort made to try and link the two styles or have them meet in the middle. We just get "Real Emotion" at the top of the album, then "Nasty Girl" and "To Be One" at the bottom of it, and that's the non-solution.

Where-as as every song on Affection was written by Kumi Koda, she didn't write a damn thing on Grow Into One. I guess Avex banned a bitch from taking a notepad into the studio following the low sales of Affection. It's interesting, because Grow Into One feels the true start of Kumi Koda's ascent to the J-Pop star we have now. And whilst she may not have been given the chance to write any of the songs, it doesn't affect her performance on any of them. The Kumi on Affection and Grow Into One are like night and day. Her voice on this album sounds much more like the Kumi we know now. There's a fire in her on this album which was sorely missing on her debut. Her giving strong performances and energy to songs which she didn't write is something which speaks to a couple of her albums later in her career.
Album review: Kumi Koda - Grow Into One | Random J Pop
There's only so much to really say about this album, because it really is just a more amped up version of Affection. It does what the last album did, just with more zest. But as good as some of the songs are, and the intro being the only terrible song in the cut, Grow Into One is still an unremarkable album, and one which will only be remembered as 'the one with the Final Fantasy songs'. And many of the failings of Affection are still evident on this album. It's still trying to be everything and everybody else. The focus is just securing a familiar hit and not developing Kumi Koda's sound. The album sounds like three in one, with nothing really connecting the styles, which is in part because of the shoddy sequencing.

Grow Into One is better than its predecessor, but there's nothing to really come back to, and no lasting impact aside from Final Fantasy X-2.

👍🏾 The emergence of the Kumi we know
👎🏾 The songs are decent, but you won't remember them


Album highlights:
■ Real Emotion 🏆
■ Boy Friend?
■ Your Only One
■ One Night Romance
■ S.O.S ~Sound of Silence~
■ m•a•z•e